Authorities in New Delhi are considering a first-of-its-kind lockdown to combat worsening air pollution.
Schools have already been closed indefinitely as severe smog choked people living in the Indian capital and neighbouring states on Wednesday.
The number of dangerous pollution particles in New Delhi’s air was measured at seven times the safe level on Wednesday, climbing above 300 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city.
The World Health Organisation designates the safe level for the tiny, poisonous particles at 25.
Some coal-based power plants have been closed, but India‘s top court is considering implementing a lockdown – a first of its kind in the country – to stem pollution and not to control coronavirus infections.
It’s not clear how far the lockdown would go, but the New Delhi government has already shown its willingness to impose emergency weekend restrictions, similar to those implemented during the pandemic.
India, which is heavily reliant on coal, pushed for a watering down of the COP26 agreement last week in regards to fossil fuels.
A last-minute intercession from the nation, and China, saw the wording on coal change from “phase out” to “phase down”, causing disappointment among small island nations and European countries.
COP president Alok Sharma said India and China would have to “justify” their decision to have the agreement altered at the 11th hour.
India is now waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on a potential lockdown, which could come as early as 24 November.
Some experts say such a move would have a limited impact and would only cause disruption to the economy and the livelihoods of millions as the government is considering allowing industry to remain open.
The government is discussing whether it would keep the industries open, and some experts say a lockdown would achieve very little in controlling pollution but rather would cause disruptions in the economy and impact the of people.
“This is not the solution that we are looking for, because this is hugely disruptive. And we also have to keep in mind that the economy is already under pressure, poor people are at risk,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Center for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi.
Suresh Chand Jain, 60, a shopkeeper in the city, said: “We are already suffering losses for the past one to two years because of the [pandemic] lockdown and now shutting work and businesses in the name of pollution.
“As is, there is hardly any work. Pollution is here to stay unless the government takes measures to control it. It’s an annual feature now. It’s very important to take care.”
Soaring pollution levels in the capital prompted a federal environment ministry panel to issue strict guidelines on Tuesday night to show residents that the government was taking action to control an environmental crisis that has been plaguing the capital for years.
Besides the closure of schools, the Commission for Air Quality Management ordered a stop to construction activities until 21 November and banned trucks carrying non-essential goods.
The panel also directed the states to “encourage” work from home for half of the employees in all private offices.
Forecasters have warned the air quality could worsen before the arrival of cold winds next week that will blow away the smog.
As one of the world’s most polluted capitals, New Delhi battles chronic winter smog each year.
However, the air quality was worse earlier this month, when it registered in the “severe”.
It prompted a stern warning last week from India’s Supreme Court, which ordered state and federal governments to take “imminent and emergency” measures to tackle what it called a crisis.
Several studies have estimated that more than a million Indians die every year because of air pollution-related diseases.